U.S. Grant and Alex Hays, Part 1 – From West Point to Mexico
Updated: May 31
This is the first in a four-part series which focuses on the relationship between General-in-Chief and President Ulysses S. Grant and Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays, a native of Franklin, Pennsylvania. This entry covers the pair from approximately 1841 to the 1850s. Subsequent pieces will follow the story through the Civil War, to the death of Hays at the Battle of the Wilderness, and the heartfelt reaction to the loss by Ulysses S. Grant. Stay tuned to Pennsylvania in the Civil War for future installments.
Ulysses S. Grant was an Ohio native who spent much of his life in Illinois, but the United States general and president had a strong Pennsylvania pedigree.
Both sets of grandparents to the man born as Hiram Ulysses on April 27, 1822, had once settled on the eastern and western extents of the Keystone State, respectively. Grant’s father, Jesse, entered the world near Greensburg, Westmoreland County (southeast of Pittsburgh) in 1794. Four years later, Grant’s mother, Hannah Simpson, began her life at Horsham, Montgomery County (northwest of Philadelphia).
At age 17, Grant passed through the Commonwealth of his ancestors en route to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. “I took passage on a steamer at Ripley, Ohio, for Pittsburg [sic], about the middle of May, 1839...,” he later recalled. “From Pittsburg I chose passage by the canal to Harrisburg, rather than by the more expeditious stage. This gave me a better opportunity of enjoying the fine scenery of Western Pennsylvania.”
“From Harrisburg to Philadelphia there was a railroad, the first I had ever seen, except the one on which I had just crossed over the summit of the Allegheny Mountains, and over which canal boats were transported,” Grant explained. “In travelling by the road from Harrisburg, I thought the perfection of rapid transit had been reached....I stopped five days in Philadelphia, saw about every street in the city, attended the theatre, visited Gerard College (which was then in course of construction), and got reprimanded from home afterwards, for dallying by the way so long.”
After he finally reported to West Point, the newly anagrammed U.S. Grant eventually struck up a decades-long professional relationship with his fellow cadet Alexander Hays, who called Franklin, Pennsylvania, home. As the government seat of Venango County, Franklin sits about 85 miles north of Pittsburgh.
At face value, the pair of plebes appear to have been rather different. But before Grant graduated in 1843 and Hays did the same in 1844, the acquaintances forged a friendship. The men’s fondness for one another later led Hays to affirm his “faith in ‘Sam’ Grant” during the Civil War, and caused a dignitary to observe Grant “weeping like a child” at Hays’s grave in 1868.
At West Point, “Grant’s scholarship was respectable and no more and Grant admits it,” wrote George Thornton Fleming in the Life and Letters of Alexander Hays, the first biography written about the eventual brigadier general, published in 1919, and based largely on family correspondence provided by one of Hays’s sons, Gilbert. “Alexander Hays, however, was well prepared,” Fleming clarified. Ultimately, Grant finished in the middle of his class, placing 21st out of 39 students, while Hays ended near the bottom of his, at 20th out of 25.
“Grant was quiet and serious,” Fleming observed. “He might even have been termed docile. He had no remarks to hand back.” In Grant’s own words, “I am not aware of ever having used a profane expletive in my life; but I would have the charity to excuse those who may have done so.” Contrarily, the onetime commander of the Philadelphia Brigade, Alexander Webb, described Hays as “vulgar beyond measure,” while a New York private recalled, “Alex Hays...could use the profane and make a base hit every time.”
Additionally, “Then Grant was small in stature and rather sluggish in nature,” Fleming noted, for at his maximum height, Grant stood five feet, eight inches tall. On the other hand, “Alexander Hays was in striking contrast, of heroic mold, six feet in height and of magnificent physical proportions,” Fleming noted.
“Alexander Hays was quick, impetuous, even fiery,” Fleming continued. “If anything in the code of cadet etiquette in the way of conventionalities in the reception and treatment of plebes, ever made life a burden to Alexander Hays and caused a weariness of the flesh...the story has not come down to the Hays family. One must remember here that Grant and Alexander Hays were subsequently chums.”
The two future officers spent a collective six years at West Point, from 1841 to 1847, a period during which the rigorous institution produced a veritable who’s-who of eventual Civil War leaders. This included Pennsylvanians like John F. Reynolds, William B. Franklin, Winfield Scott Hancock, and Samuel Sturgis, among others. “Grant’s friends were Hays’ friends,” Fleming stated, such as soon-to-be notables James Longstreet and Rufus Ingalls—the latter of whom was both Hays’s and Grant’s roommate at separate times.
Outside of academics, “‘Sam’ Grant excelled in horsemanship” at the academy, Fleming wrote. Over time, this has proven to be a trait witnessed by anyone who ever saw Grant ride. Like his friend, “Alexander Hays too was a most excellent horseman from his youth,” the biographer professed.
After commencement in 1843, Grant was brevetted a second lieutenant in the Army and assigned to the Fourth U.S. Infantry, which Hays joined one year later after having earned the same honor in his own right. Both “the Third and Fourth Infantry regiments were ordered from Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, to Fort Jessup, Louisiana, in May 1844, a few weeks prior to Alexander Hays’ graduation,” Fleming reported, using a timeline based on the memoirs of Hays’s and Grant’s comrade, James Longstreet.
From 1844 to 1845, the regiment lodged at Camp Salubrity in Natchitoches, Louisiana, under Bvt. Brig. Gen. Zachary Taylor. As tension brewed between the U.S. and Mexico, “Here General Taylor’s little ‘Army of Observation’ was organized, which became the ‘Army of Occupation,’ July 25, 1845, at Corpus Christi,” Fleming chronicled.
While at the installation, Grant and Hays were photographed together.
Four decades later, on July 23, 1885, the Pittsburgh Leader reprinted said image (which has since become frequently used in biographies, especially those about Grant published in the late-19th and early 20th centuries) with an accompanying description under the headline, “GENERAL ALEXANDER HAYS AND GRANT AT MEXICO.” In reality, as the paper later clarified, the young officers’ likenesses were captured about a year before their service in the Mexican-American War. Hays’s supportive son, Gilbert Adams, alerted the newspaper of the picture, along with a statement instructing that it was “taken at Camp Salubrity, Louisiana, in 1845, when on their way to the Mexican war....The photograph is a copy of a daguerreotype now in the possession of General Hays’ family.”
“General Grant and General Hays had graduated the year before from West Point, and each with the rank of second lieutenant, were on their way to the front when the daguerreotype was taken,” the subtitle maintained. “The picture shows the two men dismounted, General Hays holding his horse by the bridle and Grant with his right arm thrown carelessly over the neck of his charger. Both are dressed in the regulation uniform of that day, General Hays wearing shoulder straps and General Grant the stripes on the coat sleeve denoting his rank.”
“Boyish in appearance he has a soldier-like bearing, his military cap setting well down on his big high forehead,” the Leader explained of Grant. “The caps worn at that time were unlike the military cap of today, being high with a brim that projected downward over the eyes instead of straight forward as now worn. His face is smooth without the sign of a beard.”
Not long after the photogenic portrait was taken, Hays, Grant, and nearly 75,000 of their armed countrymen went to war. Grant “bitterly opposed” the U.S. military action in Mexico and regarded it “as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” Further, he classified the confrontation “as an instance of a republic...not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”
Though “Hays and Grant had been friends at West Point...and very chummy afterwards while subalterns in the old Fourth Infantry,” the duo was separated on June 18, 1846, when Hays was transferred to the Eighth U.S. Infantry, along with their pal Longstreet. But “Grant never left the Fourth until he resigned as captain, about seven years after the Mexican War,” which ended in 1848, wrote Fleming. Both men participated in their fair share of consequential battles at places like Palo Alto, Resaca De La Palra, Monterey, Vera Cruz, and Chapultepec.
In May 1897, Maj. John W. Emerson, a Civil War veteran of the 47th Missouri Infantry, penned an article about Grant for Midland Monthly Magazine, featuring a story Hays purportedly told the author. Emerson studied law in Pittsburgh during the 1850s, which one might surmise is when he likely met Hays, who died in 1864. Emerson’s excerpt of Hays’s anecdote detailed Grant’s “mastery in the management of horses and his splendid horsemanship,” which, the writer believed, “were important factors for his success in handling his quartermaster and commissary trains” in Mexico.
“Hays,...who was a young officer and friend of Grant in the Mexican War, told the author that Grant’s ability in that particular was always a surprise to him,” wrote Emerson. He quoted Hays, who apparently said, “that ‘there was no road so bad, or so obstructed with the army or other wagon trains, but that Grant, in some mysterious way, would work his train through and have it in the camp of his brigade before the campfires were lighted.’”
Hays “related an incident illustrating this,” Emerson testified. “In moving around the south side of the city [Mexico City] and lake, the army had to make new roads over very difficult ground, and these became obstructed as night approached. One of Grant’s teamsters became separated from his train and was at the rear of the army inquiring for Grant.”
Col. John “Garland, whose brigade was at the front a mile or more distant, but who had gone to the rear to see General [Winfield] Scott, heard the man make the inquiry,” Emerson concluded, “and sharply reprimanded him for being absent from duty, saying, ‘Who ever heard of Grant being found at the rear! You will find him at the front, sir, with his command! Begone!’”
As Hays’s recollection partly shows, each lieutenant—Grant and Hays—was heralded for his actions throughout the conflict, the basis for commendations by superior officers and subsequent laudations after the cessation of hostilities, even into the Civil War years. In peacetime, Hays resigned from the Army on April 12, 1848, opting instead to try his hand at a series of jobs in and around Pittsburgh, including railroading, engineering, surveying, and regulating. During the Gold Rush of 1849, Hays ventured westward to San Francisco, California, in which environs Grant served as one of only a few dozen captains in the entire Army until his own resignation, effective July 31, 1854.
In the coming seven years, enhanced sectional resentment brought the U.S. to rebellion and civil war. By 1861, U.S. Grant prepared to leave his unsuccessful antebellum exploits for an Illinois colonelcy, while in western Pennsylvania, Alex Hays earned a captaincy but yearned for more. Eventually, the old friends would find themselves on the same battlefield—one commanding all of the republic’s armies and earning an immortal role in the nation’s memory, while the other led a brigade and suffered a tragic demise.
Part 2 of this series focuses on the next time Grant and Hays served in the same army—in 1864, during the Civil War.
 Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1885), vol. 1, 18-19, 23.  Grant, Personal Memoirs, 37-38.  Hays to Andrew Curtin, April 15, 1864, in George Thornton Fleming, Life and Letters of Alexander Hays (Pittsburgh: Gilbert Adams Hays, 1919), 590; “Grant and Hays,” Pittsburgh Evening Chronicle (Pittsburgh, PA), Sept. 18, 1869, reprinted in Life and Letters, 658-659. Life and Letters is hereafter referred to as L&L.  Fleming, L&L, 8, 687.  Fleming, L&L, 9; Grant, Personal Memoirs, 106; Alexander Webb to “Dear wife,” Aug. 8, 1863, Yale University Webb Papers, copy at Gettysburg National Military Park Library (Gettysburg, PA), File V5 – Participant Accounts, Alexander Webb; George H. Washburn, A Complete Military History and Record of the 108th Regiment N.Y. Vols. from 1862 to 1894 (Rochester, NY: Press of E.R. Andrews, 1894), 155.  Fleming, L&L, 9.  Fleming, L&L, 9, 686-689.  Fleming, L&L, 11.  “GENERAL ALEXANDER HAYS AND GRANT AT MEXICO,” Pittsburgh Leader (Pittsburgh, PA), July 23, 1885, reprinted in, L&L, 64-65.  Grant, Personal Memoirs, 53.  Fleming, L&L, 19, 52.  John W. Emerson, “Grant’s Life in the West and His Mississippi Valley Campaigns (A History.),” in Midland Monthly (Des Moines, IA: Johnson Brigham), vol. 7, 432-433.